When grammar gets personal

As an English student I should be more conscious about word choices than I am.  In all honesty I have often been reprimanded for my lack of concern in this matter (which most of my lecturers and tutors attribute to an over-enthusiasm to get my point across).  However, I have noticed that in grading my papers, there seems to be different issues that each lecturer will take with my writing style.  It is fairly evident that writing style is individual and so lecturers will have personal preferences about what they like and don’t like.  But what if there is something more to it.   I recently stumbled upon James Pennebaker’s The Secret Life of Words and found it illuminating not only for criticism of my lecturers but also to word choice in general.

Pennebaker finds meaning in words such as ‘he,’ ‘she,’ ‘we’ and ‘I.’  The main point he is attempting to get across in his study is words “can be thought of as powerful tools to excavate people’s thoughts, feeling, motivations, and connections with others.’  These words may be small, indeed pronouns make up a very small percentage of our vocabulary, but they are used so often, in many different contexts that depth of meaning is obviously not connected to the minimal number of characters in the word.

Now let me be honest, in returning to my own personal scholarly dilemma of  paper grading, (indeed, even if I wasn’t honest Pennebaker could probably determine my underlying motivation by my use of the very personal and self-conscious “I”) lecturers more often pick out words with complex meanings saying that in not being careful with my word choice I have made my point ambiguous and unclear, essentially a death sentence in critical analysis.    However, a handful of lectures have made comments on my use of pronouns, one lecturer accused me of conflating the authors intention with my own personal rendering of a text through my choice of pronouns.  On the other hand, when I attempted to revise this for my a later essay, a different tutor claimed that I was too hesitant in advocating my point and I needed to have more faith in my own personal analysis.  Well thats helpful.  Apparently, I went from one extreme to another, going from being too authoritative to too timid.  Maybe I’m missing the point.  Alternatively, maybe Pennebaker has offered me the solution.  He purposes that men use definite articles because they are concerned with the concrete, while women use more personal pronouns, social and cognitive words because they are concerned with subjective human relationships and experiences.   If you haven’t guessed the first lecturer was female and the second tutor was male.

Now, I am often very skeptical about recent psychological analysis as psychology is very easy to fake a study of, and like literature, a theory cannot be proved definitively (at least in most circumstances).  But I firmly believe that we each utilize and manipulate language according to our approach to the world.  Grammar and word choice is extremely personal.  While there are definite rules that must be followed in order for communication to be possible, this doesn’t deny individual manipulations.  I don’t suggest that we read Pennebakers study and go around analyzing ever tweet and facebook status for specific use of pronouns and psychoanalyze the author (although that could be extremely entertaining).  But I do believe that when editors, lecturers, or even pretentious English students criticize grammar and writing style they should a step back.  There isn’t one right style, its a personal choice, reflective of a personal approach to the world, or in my case text. In criticizing my word choices my lecturers are, to some extent, utilizing their power to force me to conform to their own theory of the correct way of writing.  This rant, I’ll be the first to admit, must be taken with  pinch of salt.  My lecturers and tutors are more experienced and educated then me and their criticism is for the most part constructive and useful in helping me to shape my personal style and render myself more understandable.  However, there remains the possibility that subjective theories about what is ‘right’ infects their grading and realizing this may lead to more self-conscious marking.  Alternatively, they may already be aware of all this and I may just be a bitter student finding an excuse for what is really my own incompetence.


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